You've had an amazing career of almost 50 years. What keeps you challenging yourself and trying new things?
I think that in any kind of career you can't keep doing the same over and over again, you have to look for new things. There are so many different works in the repertoire, and I'm always trying to find exciting parts, either singing or conducting. It's really wonderful to be able to live all these unbelievable characters. And it's especially beautiful to suffer on stage! Something you don't like to do in life...
How did you decide to sing Boccanegra?
It has been my dream for years. I always thought that at the end of my career I'd like to do Boccanegra. It has just come earlier than I thought, because it obviously won't be my last role. I'm doing Tamerlano now in L.A., and I just did Siegmund the other day in Berlin, so I'm combining this baritone role with my tenor roles. So far I have done six performances of Boccanegra in Berlin, and I feel very comfortable with it. It's an exciting part, a noble character, with all the beautiful Verdi lines. Strangely, it's perhaps the only baritone role in the whole of Verdi, along with Amonasro, that doesn't really have an aria. But all his scenes are amazing, especially the great ensemble at the end of Act I.
You once said that the character of Boccanegra, as a father figure, must have appealed to Verdi, as he was himself an unhappy father whose children died at a young age.
Exactly. Some of the most exciting scenes in Verdi have to do with children. There's Boccanegra, Amonasro, Rigoletto, and also I Vespri Siciliani and Luisa Miller. There are many fathers with very beautiful music. Verdi always comes back to these situations, particularly between father and daughter.
In 1993, you sang the title role of Stiffelio for the opera's Met premiere. Now you're conducting it!
I'm very happy to add it to my repertoire because I really feel at home conducting Verdi. I'm excited to have taken part in every performance of Stiffelio at the Met, first singing and now conducting. It's a very significant piece because it comes exactly before Rigoletto, Traviata, and Trovatore, Verdi's three big popular operas. Sometimes when people recognize a melody or a rhythmical accompaniment in Stiffelio, they'll say, "Oh, that sounds like Rigoletto!" Well, the fact is that Rigoletto sounds like Stiffelio!
Stiffelio has been called Verdi's most unjustly neglected work. Why is it not performed more often?
It is without any doubt a great opera. But, as with any great opera, the principal parts for the tenor, the soprano, and the baritone are very difficult. When you have singers who can face the challenges of Stiffelio, you'll probably do Trovatore, instead, or maybe Don Carlo or Forza, something better known. It takes a theater like the Met, which has done all those operas, to put it on.
What is the most important piece of advice you give to young opera singers?
They really must have a total passion for it. It's a very difficult life, to be traveling constantly, to be far from your family. So if you don't have the passion and dedication to start with, don't even try. Of course, you have to have certain vocal qualities, a beautiful sound, legato singing. You have to be able to prepare, to improve, to never stop studying and learning. And your expectations should always be big. Everyone should hope for a big career, though of course not everybody will make it.
Will there be other new roles for you after Boccanegra?
At the moment I'm looking at Monteverdi's Ulysses [in Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria], which is really tremendous. I'm doing the world premiere of Il Postino [by Mexican composer Daniel Catán], and I'm looking for some baritone roles. Not that I want to be a baritone, but special circumstances will make me think about roles that I believe are dramatically right for me. Anything is possible!
Stiffelio opened on January 11 and runs through January 30. Simon Boccanegra opened on January 18 and the final performance will be seen live in HD on February 6.